In January 2012, three off-duty deputies killed a man with Down syndrome over the price of a movie ticket. Now, a civil lawsuit over Ethan Saylor’s death is allowed to continue, as ruled by Judge William Nickerson, and reported here in the Washington Post.
If you are new to #JusticeForEthan, I have a few links to offer, culled quickly from my own record. There are lots of other pieces out there by many wonderful writers, and please go read them!
- Here’s what I wrote for CNN last year.
- Here’s a quick primer on the death I wrote before doing some radio work.
- Reactions to some of my writing.
- Most recent piece on the election of the local sheriff (whose men killed Ethan).
- And my Al Jazeera piece on the cult of compliance, which I think is a key lens through which to view this killing.
The judge’s ruling, as quoted in the Post, basically asks the question – why did the deputies get violent so fast? There was no threat, just a non-compliant individual.
Regular readers of this blog will know my answer – these police are steeped in the cult of compliance.
It is, of course, more complicated than that. Ableism links to compliance. It’s clear that the officers had no idea what to do with a non-compliant individual with Down syndrome, no sense that communication was possible, so they went physical, even when they were warned not to do so by Ethan’s aide.
Ableism plays in the response, too. Ethan, a grown man wanting to watch a violent movie, was not cute. It took a long time to generate wide-spread response, as he didn’t fit the semiotic pattern of what Down syndrome is supposed to be (i.e. cute, sweet, angelic).
Here are some key paragraphs about the judge’s ruling from the article, all emphases mine.
The judge said the deputies could have waited for his caregiver or mother to coax him out of his seat or allow them to buy a ticket for the next show and let him stay.
“When the deputies were presented with these various alternatives, there was no emergent situation requiring any rapid response on their part,” Nickerson wrote.
Later in the piece:
Nickerson said the theater manager was correct to call security. But he questioned the deputies’ response. The judge said that Saylor did resist attempts to remove him but “responded in precisely the way” his aide “informed the deputies he would respond.”
The judge found it reasonable that Saylor would suffer “significant injury” when “the decision was made to drag an obese individual with a mental disability out of his chair and down a ramp.”
The judge noted the deputies’ defense: that they followed training in steadily escalating force to remove Saylor from his seat.
Once he refused their orders, it was reasonable to arrest him, and that made it reasonable for them to use force to handcuff him behind his back, he added. Saylor ended up on the floor, under the three deputies, and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
Nickerson said that “perhaps the most significant unsettled question is the reason for the escalation in the deputies’ use of force.” He said that escalation “increased dramatically.”
To my reading, the reason for escalation in the use of force is that Saylor said, “fuck you,” and then didn’t comply, and so then the deputies did exactly was they had been taught and responded to non-compliance with escalating force.
It’s wrong when the victim has Down syndrome.
It’s also wrong to escalate at any time for anyone unless there is a threat. There was no threat here.